The director of the White House's political office defied a subpoena from the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday, setting up a new high-profile fight between the White House and House Republicans.
Issa has not produced evidence of a specific instance of the White House violating the law and has pointed to abuses in the office that occurred under the Bush Administration to justify the subpoena.
“Mr. Simas’ testimony is critically important and we are going to attempt to clarify whether or not President Obama intends to invoke Executive Privilege before considering our next course of action,” Issa said.
White House counsel Neil Eggleston said in a letter Tuesday night that Simas was “immune from congressional compulsion to testify on matters relating to his official duties” because doing so would threaten “longstanding interests of the Executive Branch in preserving the president's independence and autonomy.”
Eggleston also noted that the White House had tried to accommodate the committee by providing a briefing between administration officials and committee staff on Tuesday. During the 75-minute gathering, White House staffers fielded more than 40 questions from Issa's staff, and, according to Eggleston, “stayed until the Committee staff determined they had completed their questioning.”
“Your hasty decision to subpoena Mr. Simas is all the more unfounded because the Committee has been unable to point to any indication” the White House broke the law, Eggleston wrote.
Issa said Wednesday that Congress does “not and should not need a smoking gun” to investigate the administration. He said the committee was justified in demanding testimony from a senior presidential adviser, pointing to when Democrats compelled Harriet Miers, the White House counsel to former President George W. Bush, to testify about allegations of the politically motivated firings of U.S. attorneys.
He also played a voicemail in which former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis solicits a campaign contribution while on the job to demonstrate that the Obama administration had previously run afoul of the Hatch Act. Solis was not in any way connected to the political office under investigation.
Issa also objected to the White House not consulting with the United States Office of Special Counsel before reopening the political office earlier this year. The OSC investigates Hatch Act violations within the federal government.
In written testimony, OSC head Carolyn Lerner said that based on a review of correspondence between Issa and the White House, “it appears that the White House adhered to OSC guidance in determining the scope of activity for the office” and were “consistent with Hatch Act restrictions.”
Committee ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) blasted the exercise as “political theater” in his opening statement.
“I strongly support the authority to issue subpoenas when necessary, to require people to provide information to fulfill their constitutional responsibility. But I cannot and will not support the abuse of this very powerful authority when it serves no legitimate purpose and there is no evidence a witness did anything wrong,” Cummings said.
The Maryland Democrat said that, in the Miers case, there was evidence wrongdoing had occurred and noted she no longer worked in the White House at the time of the subpoena.
“We do not simply haul in one of the president's top advisers at will. There must be a reason,” Cummings said.
Issa provided little insight into whether he would take legal action against the White House in an attempt to further compel testimony from Simas, saying only, “we are going to attempt to clarify whether or not President Obama intends to invoke executive privilege before considering our next course of action.”